THE SCREENING ROOM
By Bill KallayFaint memories cloud my mind about "Blood Simple."
"Blood Simple" is now available on Blu-ray.
Somewhere in the recesses of my memory lies an image of watching Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert fawning over a film by the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan. Back in 1984, they made a low budget art house film that was original and striking. The film, "Blood Simple," was a modern update on film noir, a 1940s creation that still has film buffs salivating. With dark antiheroes and damsels in distress, film noir looked into the human subconscious. The Coen Brothers, clearly lovers of film, embraced film noir as their own and devised "Blood Simple."
Siskel and Ebert really enjoyed it. To my high school mind, it looked like a cool, dark film that appealed to my inner film geek. But since I wasn't officially driving yet, and the fact that the film seemed to play in far off movie theaters, I never saw it. I never saw it on VHS. I never saw it on LaserDisc or DVD. I never saw it on cable or even free TV. I didn't see it until it came out on this Blu-ray.
In the years since "Blood Simple" put the Coen Brothers on the map, they've certainly made some classic films. Although I haven't seen all of their films, I've always admired the Coen's craft. I have loved some of their films, such as "No Country For Old Men." I loved some of their films initially, like "Raising Arizona," only to think it was an "ok" movie years later. I was bored, yet admired some of the craft of "Miller's Crossing." I love "Fargo," though it was repeated ad nauseum on DirecTV. "The Big Lebeowski" is another classic. As for "Blood Simple," how does it hold up in the Coen collection?
In watching it nearly thirty years later, it's easy to see why critics fell in love with it. The clever Barry Sonnenfeld cinematography certainly gives the film its signature look. Actors John Getz, Frances McDormand, M. Emmet Walsh and Dan Hedaya give truly strong performances. The writing is sharp and the direction, especially for a first-time feature film, is very good. I can imagine myself as a high school kid who loved movies and movie style loving this film with an audience of other film geeks.
Here it is almost three decades after its release and I came away rather bored with the film. The style and story reminded me of more recent low budget film noir releases like "The Last Seduction," where characters and a clever script drive the film. "Blood Simple," seen today, is a template for low budget art house dramas. And yet, at least for me, left me unmoved or excited with the outcome. The old cliché came into play: I watched the film and kept waiting for something to happen.
The performances are very good in this film. But I didn't care for any of the characters or their plight. Hedaya is effective as the scorned husband, yet I couldn't get it out of my mind that he played Carla's husband, Nick Tortelli, on "Cheers." John Getz does a credible job, but I couldn't remember anything significant about his character. Frances McDormand is wonderful, but it was M. Emmitt Walsh's character that bugged me. His silly laugh and sweaty character made me cringe. I'm sure that's how the Coen's wanted him to be, but I didn't like him. Walsh is a great actor, no doubt. Here, a bit more refinement and losing the laugh might've worked better for me.
Low budget first-time features have a way of dazzling both critics and audiences when they're released. People rave about the greatness of the direction, acting, and story done on a shoestring budget. "The Blair Witch Project" is a good example. A lot of people thought it was an incredible movie, even though they overlooked the plot holes and mediocre acting. How many people watch that movie now with any reverence? I'm sure that many people revere "Blood Simple" on the fact that it's a Coen Brothers film. It is certainly much stronger than a "Blair Witch Project" film. But for me, it doesn't hold up all that well. Clearly, it was the start of a tremendously great career for the Coen Brothers. Their style was stamped all over this film. In almost all of their films I've seen, the style is almost always strong. Yet there is also an underlying coldness. "Blood Simple" is no exception.
The Blu-ray picture is excellent. On my 50-inch screen, film grain is nearly non-existent. I'm not sure if a really fine grain print was used, or if there was some digital clean up done. Most films released in 35mm at the time could be grainy and unsharp, depending on print quality. I can't imagine this film, despite Sonnenfeld's lighting, looked exceptionally clean. But I could be wrong. Nonetheless, the Blu-ray looks great.
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is excellent. The sound effects of gun shots, for example, come through loud and clear. In fact, I was a little startled by some of them. Apparently the film was restored with new sound effects. Since I had not seen the film before, the effects matched the film pretty well. Even in 1985, films of this caliber could have a decent Dolby Stereo soundtrack. The new sound effects do sound more modern and "clean," but they don't detract from the film too much.
I'm probably in the minority when it comes to admiring or loving "Blood Simple." I do admire it for being an early indicator of some of the great films the Coen Brothers would eventually make. But I don't love it, unfortunately.
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Photos: © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. All rights reserved.